Understanding your core strengths is hard for any startup. Learning that lesson in a developing country, as we found out, is a lot more difficult.
Our mission at Impact Enterprises is to provide exceptional outsourcing services while creating valuable employment to Zambian graduates. That may all sound fine, but figuring out what exactly that meant was a 9 month process of trial and error – many errors – and a candid self-assessment.
Impact Enterprises is the first impact sourcing company in Zambia and one of the first in Africa. When we launched in June 2013, we were breaking new ground for the tech sector in the country. Having seen the model work in Kenya, Ghana, and Uganda, we were eager to be first movers in bringing this promising industry to Zambia.
Yet where should we begin? The government had little priority in fostering tech jobs and research on skillsets and opportunities was non-existent. Across the country, a dozen universities were offering courses in computer studies but few companies were actually utilizing this new talent.
Our instinct was to follow our peers. We looked at companies like Digital Divide Data in Kenya and TaskUs in the Philippines to see where the opportunities were in outsourcing contracts. While we knew attempting computer programming projects would be beyond our skill set, high quality services like transcription and customer support seemed within our reach.
The first batch of employees we hired was well qualified. They included college graduates from a variety of backgrounds including customer support, IT networking, and project management. They relocated from the nation’s capital to Eastern Zambia to work at our office in Chipata, the provincial capital.
Our initial projects involved categorizing audio recordings and web research. This sort of work was below our target skillset, but we felt demonstrating our talent with some easier projects would certainly set us up for bigger wins. But after a couple months, we knew there was a problem. What seemed like easy instructions were being confused. Tasks took far longer than expected. Research was being mismanaged. Errors were being entered.
We began to panic. How would we secure more difficult projects if we couldn’t get even this right?
When things aren’t working, one of two people is to blame: the customer or yourself. While we would have loved to blame our (few) clients at that point, clearly we needed to look ourselves in the mirror. We needed to reassess who we were, who we wanted to be. We needed to pivot.
The latest estimate is that only 16% of Zambia has access to the internet, and 75% of those users are just in the capital Lusaka. Zambia has some of the highest internet costs in Africa. The government mandated computers be part of the grade school curriculum only last year, but few schools have the budget or resources to support a computer lab.
This means few graduates, even from college programs, have significant exposure to using a computer. Slow typing speeds are an obvious symptom but even the second-nature intuition of navigating the internet is still opaque. All this surfaced when our initial project performance fell short of our expectations.
What Zambia did have was a young workforce with a strong English understanding that was eager to master the computer. Inadvertently, we had thrown our workers into the deep end and expected a gold medal performance.
The next couple months were spent properly retraining every employee from the ground up. Nothing could be taken for granted and we had to focus on the fundamentals before we could get to the next level. We realized the huge gap we were filling by being a first mover and the responsibility of leading a new generation along our vision.
Just as importantly, we reevaluated our service offering so we could scale our operations without burdening our resources. What we found was a greenfield market for outsourcing services that demanded a medium-skill workforce at competitive prices. This was our niche.
After 9 months, we knew a bit better where we stood. Our opportunity isn’t chasing after the front runners. It’s to forge in our own direction with the skills at our disposal, catering to an underserved market that other players have ignored. Zambia is not Kenya. It isn’t the Philippines. It can only be Zambia. And we’re slowly realizing what that means.